What You REALLY Need To Know About Inflammation

In most circumstances, inflammation is a totally normal and healthy immune reaction. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection or injury, explains Andrew Miller, MD, at Emory University, who has been studying the way this response affects our mental health. Dr. Miller is a faculty member in the NS program.

When your nose gets all runny when you have a cold, that’s thanks to inflammation. This is your body's way of trying to stop the germs from spreading by trapping them in your snot and flushing them out. When the area around a paper cut gets red and puffy, that’s inflammation protecting you from an infection at the wound site. When, say, the arches of your feet aren’t supported and you develop the pain and heat in your heel of plantar fasciitis, that’s also inflammation. All of these responses, while unpleasant, are signs that your immune system knows there’s a problem and is sending white blood cells to support the healing process. 

But the key is that those inflammatory responses go away. “If [inflammation] becomes chronic or persistent,” explains Dr. Miller, “it can do significant damage to a number of systems in the body.” This is the case for autoimmune disorders, such as thyroid disorders, as well as inflammatory bowel diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. Treatments that specifically target inflammation (e.g. steroids) are the key in these more serious situations. 

But, for the rest of us, inflammation isn’t a disease on its own — though, and this is where it gets tricky, there is evidence that even in the absence of a specific disease, inflammation may still be long-lasting for some people. In this case, we're talking about a complex, poorly-understood type of inflammation. Scientists aren't sure exactly where it comes from, but we do know that stress (including repeated stressful interactions with our fellow humans) seems to be a major cause of this kind.

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